Michael Jackson in East Berlin
Communism and the Commodity
Let’s start from an old but not superseded position voiced by Walter Benjamin in the epilogue to his essay ‘Das Kunstwerk im Zeitalter seiner technischen Reproduzierbarkeit’:
Die zunehmende Proletarisierung der heutigen Menschen und die zunehmende Formierung von Massen sind zwei Seiten eines und des selben Geschehens. Der Faschismus versucht, die neu entstandenen proletarisieren Massen zu organisieren, ohne die Eigentumsverhälnisse, auf deren Beseitigung sie hindrängen, anzutasten. Er sieht sein Heil darin, die Massen zu ihren Ausdruck (beileibe nicht zu ihrem Recht) kommen zu lassen. Die Massen haben ein Recht auf Veränderung der Eigentumsverhältnisse; der Faschismus sucht ihnen einen Ausdruck in deren Konservierung zu geben.
The growing proletarianization of modern people and the increasing formation of masses are two aspects of the same process. Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property.
The passage suggests that representation is subject to substitution. The two meanings of representation are relevant – representation as image of the surface and representation as political enfranchisement. Fascism produces an image of the masses - they come to expression - ‘zu ihren Ausdruck’. This phrase has particular resonance in the context of film, which is the type of representation of that Benjamin refers to in this essay. An image of the masses - their chemical trace - is pressed into celluloid. They see themselves. There is a circuit of reflection between the cinema masses and the masses on film. These masses are re-iterated. They have been compacted into a Volk, a solid body of masses come to representation. But they are mute. Fascist monumental culture is moulded for the masses and out of the masses. News reports, film, magazines reproduce the dictator cum god’s eye view, and hereby emphasize the vast size of the spectacular shows, the nazi rallies and sportive-military displays. The dictatorial camera eye surveys the surface areas of the productions, cruising above and across the dramaturgy and tightly controlled choreography of the event. The camera eye transmits aerial views of specific regimented shapes made out of ‘human material’. These shaped, ornamentalized masses are bearers of a structure that they do not compose but into whose order they are made to slot by an authoritarian order external to them, and which has technology on its side. This is visual representation without political representation. To be truly representative, in a political sense, would not, according to Benjamin, involve voting - the bourgeois model of representation - but rather the abolition of property relations. The relations Benjamin describes are none other than capitalist. And he expresses in this thesis the idea that fascism was in 1933 the response to a crisis of capitalism, specifically a crisis that relates to class struggle, in that the masses have been exercising a right to alter property relations. They have made demands, acted as revolutionaries and threatened existing relations of ownership. That is to say they have genuinely represented themselves in expressing their right to change iniquitous property relations, which comprise democratic disposal over the means of production. Note that Benjamin terms this expropriation a right that the masses possess and demand. This explodes the bourgeois language of rights, which find its pinnacle in the right to own property.
Benjamin is describing a phase of capitalism that manifested as fascism, and as reference to capitalism his thoughts are not historically superseded. After all, no shift in property relations has occurred - in terms of labour all classes have been placed in the position of the proletariat - their labour conditions (‘flexible’ and long hours, generalised freelancing, performance-related pay, the increase in bureaucracy and surveillance) are evidence of this. Living standards and quality of life for the world’s vast majority are lower now than they were before the ideological and economic victory of the market. The enormous development of the productive forces has brought with it few social advances, even if technology and science have developed apace, though constrained by the logic of the market. Robert Kurz has demonstrated statistically that workers in the Middle Ages were better off than workers of the past quarter-millennium. The working day was shorter for 15th century workers and more food could be bought for the money earned. Extension and intensification of labour time, which increases relative poverty, and subjection to the market at every turn is our reality, including the privatisation of public services, which devolves down to the level of the mortgaged individual.
Private property is the mainstay of capitalism. Before it was hijacked by Soviet state capitalism, communism meant the ‘positive supersession of private property as self-estrangement, and hence the true appropriation of the human essence through and for man’, In capitalism, property ownership (which was, and in many ways still is, the bourgeois pre-requisite for political representation) cannot be thought separately from the division of labour. Division of labour and private property are identical, notes Marx in the German Ideology and elsewhere. Division of labour is activity, while private property is the product of that activity, which is alienated from the producer through the process of commodification or expropriation. The division of labour is the parcelling up of the productive process into smaller processes, but it is also characterised in the split between manual and mental labour. This split marks itself across labour, including the specialised form of labour that is artistic production. The 'primary alienation', the split in species being occasioned by the division of labour accompanies the unequal division of cultural access and benefit. Art marks the site of a wounding. The common perception of art reinforces this split. Art’s existence as product of manual labour, a process of production, is overlooked. It is seen rather an intellectual or divinely inspired manifestation, which has a physical form, that comes to life only through the artist’s inspiration and which is convenient for the process of it becoming property. Art is produced to be a commodity, like any other, though it is also a strange one. Its power resides in its actual re-combination of mental and manual labour. That is art’s actual critical moment. Its simultaneously sensuous and intellectual existence is never simply use value or exchange value, but an effort at universal human values or a reminder of their absence. Cultural form is slashed by, negatively formed by or located in relation to social division. That art exists as a specialised area means that it can only be an alibi for the guilty portion of non-cultural life. It is an unfreedom for a few people to be charged with the task of being an artist, bearing that social role, while others are excluded from it. Conversely, marred by commodification, artistic practice today is a deformation of the sensuous unfolding of the self in solidarity that indicates real human community. Marred as such it succumbs increasingly to the commodity. The taste of advertising man and collector Charles Saatchi only made stark the link between his trade and the ‘sensationalist glamour laced with wit’ aesthetic of all that came after Young British Art, or YBA.
Berlin beer advert at the time of Christo’s ‘Reichstag wrapping’
As much as art is a commodity, the commodity apes art, and takes over its representational task. Given the refined techniques of late capitalism, an even smaller part of the commodity syntax - the brand or commodity name - is suitable for this. The name represents us, articulates for us - thinks for us, where we are mute. In his 1938 essay ‘On the Fetish Character in Music and the Regression of Listening’, Adorno observed a precursor of a more recent trend, writing:
For a while an English brewery used for propaganda purposes a billboard that bore a deceptive likeness to one of the whitewashed brick walls which are so numerous in the slums of London and the industrial cities of the North. Properly placed, the billboard was barely distinguishable from a real wall. On it, chalk-white, was a careful imitation of awkward writing. The words said: ‘What we want is Watney’s’.
The brand of beer is presented as a political preference, the ad-line a type of slogan, parodying political demands from below. The masses are meant to make a commodity recommended to them the object of their own desires and actions. Compulsion is at work. Language presses in from the outside, transporting with it domination in the form of a commodity already masked as a desire.
An Instant Coffee Jar foil
In the capitalist system, language corruption is well-advanced. The commodity has infiltrated our most intimate moments. It speaks to us like a friend, lover, employer, teacher, nurse - or simply as our inner voice.
‘I can’t believe it’s not butter’ brand of margarine
The branders of products take it upon themselves to pre-determine our experience by naming things - in ways that leave no room for a spontaneous relation to the object: It seems as if the products, these little fetishes, speak to us, or rather for us: The shelves are full of whispers, the billboards vociferous. The brands try to pre-empt our senses - putting words into our mouths, until words like ‘delicious’ are applied to the patently non-delicious, and ‘speciality’ to the ordinary - these become trademark properties of poor quality mass foodstuffs.
‘Deliciously flavoured rice’
Or they try to join up the dots of our experience by reflection across its domains.
Themed spaghetti tins
And every available space is devoted to this invasion of subjectivity by objectivity:
Beer advert on Camden High Street, London
The rich aroma is moments away, uttered Nescafe coffee, just as your thumb was poised to burst the gold foil.
The rich aroma is moments away….instant coffee foil
Continuing their one-way conversation, a few months later it changed to: ‘Prepare for an even richer aroma’.
Prepare for an even richer aroma…….
Words get occupied until shaken of meaning, and turned banal.
‘Bliss’ and ‘sublime’ sauces
In the 1940s, Adorno and Horkheimer still spoke of ‘two worlds’. A vignette in Dialectic of Enlightenment called ‘Two Worlds’ begins
Here in America there is no difference between a man and his economic fate. A man is made by his assets, income, position, and prospects. The economic mask coincides completely with a man’s inner character. Everyone is worth what he earns and earns what he is worth. He learns what he is through the vicissitudes of his economic existence. He knows nothing else.
Adorno/Horkheimer describe a purely economic existence that becomes ideology. Adorno and Horkheimer write of the US male: ‘They judge themselves by their own market value and learn what they are from what happens to them in the capitalistic economy’. If they ‘fail’ in life, say Adorno and Horkheimer, then it was simply their fault or fate. Positivistic and anti-idealist the American way may be, but it cannot do away with the ancient concept of destiny. However fate’s motive force is not the gods but something emerging from the sorry masses themselves, their own efforts or lack of them. Adorno and Horkheimer write:
Their fate, however sad it may be, is not something outside of them; they recognise its validity. A dying man in China might say, in a lowered voice:
Fortune did not smile on me in this world,
Where am I going now? Up into the mountains
To seek peace for my lonely heart.
I am a failure, the American says - and that is that.
‘Two Worlds’ proposes, then, two different modes of being in the world, linked to two types of fortune – luck or monetary, both covered by the English word fortune. Here cultural difference is registered – one world where the caprice of the gods organizes and determines life’s meaning, and one world where even the internal sense of self is measured in terms of hard cash equivalent. And what is that internal self - something pre-articulated, the inside as pure externality indeed.
What Adorno and Horkheimer called ‘the system which is uniform as a whole and in every part’ still persists and, despite well broadcast assertions of diversity and choice, in this world too ‘all the living units crystallise into well-organised complexes’. Indeed the monopolistic tendency is even more pronounced nowadays, when, for example, in the United States media concentration is far greater than ever before - a huge world market divided up between the ‘big ten’ media conglomerates that have billion-dollar interests in publishing, television, film, video and radio, music, theme-parks, internet and sports. Concentrated ownership across these areas makes it so much easier to cross-promote products, i.e. to produce material in multiple formats, as in the Disney animation film that becomes video, theme-park attraction, book, in magazines, pop hit, toy and accessories, and McDonald’s or Burger King ‘freebie’. It all locks together tightly and forms an unavoidable bulk. This is a world of exhausted internationalised formats, where repetition is compulsive, as Pop Idol, Big Brother 2, 3 and 4 and Celebrity Big Brother, or Celebrity Survivor, or another so called Reality TV show and/or quiz show format replicates around the world. Boredom inhabits this process as a permanent threat, and so hopes are high for short memories as the next re-recycling comes round, and celebrities rise and fall, to give the illusion that something is really happening, when really everything in essence stays the same: the business as usual of the expropriation of surplus-value. The culture industry has perfected techniques of substitution in representation. Reality TV shows - of which in the UK and the US, at least, there are many varieties, including those which include competition as part of their format - dramatise non-lives, re-inforcing the banality of life and delighting in human tensions. There is a myth of uncovering talent, or specialty in some, such as Pop Idol, but the shows work best when mediating failure, mediocrity or hatred. These shows parody representation, by paralleling all the mechanisms of democratic form - through voting - albeit it at very high telephone call costs - , and occupying the public sphere, in newspaper discussion and free exchange amongst individuals on chat groups and elsewhere. The shows expose the very processes of how spectacular fame is manufactured, and so seem to have nothing to hide. This seemingly total exposure lays bare a realm of system-rational goals which are values, and the values are wealth and celebrity. These are utterly unchallengeable assets, which are ‘democratic’ simply because everyone is supposed to want them. They express the general will - which means that the property system is not only unaffected. It is vaunted. The more the gap is widened between them and you, the more arresting it is. The more arresting it is, the more its hidden structures of ownership are reinforced, the wider it spreads. Representation short-circuits, marking only the place of the commodity speaking for itself or through its audiences turned advocates.
The standardization of culture is linked to industrial capitalist forms of manufacture, and so, as that form became everywhere the dominant form, in its trail followed a global standardization of cultural forms. The dying peasant in China – or at least the peasant’s cousin, the factory worker - is exposed eventually to the same images and sounds. The extension of the standardised domain brings with it the promise of pleasures that are rarely fulfilled but keep people hoping and holding on to the edge of the abyss, instead of struggling out of it. But there is a flip-side. From this tendency of the commodity form to universalise itself, a global working class is forged, with common reference points. A common language, of products and advertising, of work processes and management-speak, of establishment political rhetoric world-wide, is shared – a universally understood language emerges. Languages - even individual words - can be made to say very different things, depending on the spin. Subversion too has the chance to be universally understood, and that means universally reiterated to potentially devastating effect. This is where art and politics conjoin. Or, better, cultural practice is recast. A certain type of ventriloquistic critical cultural practice emerges, in recognition of the overly loquacious commodity.
In a letter to Gershom Scholem in August 1935, Benjamin set redemptive quoting at the heart of his method, a salvaging of scraps, the penetrant but trivial flotsam of our daily lives, and, in redeploying them, re-articulate them. He recorded his ‘attempt to hold the image of history in the most unprepossessing fixations of being, so to speak, the scraps of being’. The process of ‘globalisation’ has produced its antithesis, a globalised resistance - which might be resistance to globalisation or, more specifically, resistance to world capitalism on a world scale. This global fightback established or occupied channels of information, discussion, distribution, commentary and critique. Here is another world of cultural activity – epitomised in anti-capitalist activism, and much of which is instinctively or consciously based on avant-gardist theories and practices (e.g. montage, detournement), processes that previously resonated most forcefully at moments of revolutionary upheaval, i.e. the 1920s and 1960s. This new wave of practice is manifested both digitally through various types of 'net-activism' and in old-school styles (e.g. 'Billboard Liberation', fly-posting, graffiti). It works specifically on representation in relation to property relations. Such practice might be fruitfully considered in relation to Benjamin's concept of the 'new barbarism' – here like then a kind of squatting of the enemy's methods, tools and modes of address. Benjamin argued that 'impoverished experience' can be overpowered only if the fact of poverty is made into the underpinning of a political strategy of a ‘new barbarism’ that corresponds faithfully to the new realities of the constellation of Masse and Technik. His examples included Brecht, Scheerbart, Adolf Loos, Cubists, Paul Klee and early Disney.
Quoting from Benjamin’s vignette ‘The Destructive Character’, Hardt and Negri write of how the poverty of experience obliges the barbarian to begin anew, that the ‘new barbarian ‘sees nothing permanent. But for this very reason he sees ways everywhere’. For them, the ‘new barbarians’ ruin the old order through affirmative violence. Hardt and Negri argue, then, for the progressive nature of barbarism following the collapse of the Soviet Union. A migrant barbarian multitude – former ‘productive cadres’ who desert socialist discipline and bureaucracy in a bid for freedom. Its barbarism manifests in modes of life - their bodies transform and mutate to create new posthuman bodies, fluid both in sexuality and gender ascription, cyborgish and simian, bodies that are ‘completely incapable of submitting to command’, and ‘incapable of adapting to family life, to factory discipline, to the regulations of a traditional sex life’. There is a technological supplement to this. Hardt and Negri write: ‘The contemporary form of exodus and the new barbarian life demand that tools become poietic prostheses, liberating us from the conditions of modern humanity.’ And these protheses are, according to Hardt/Negri, those of the ‘plastic and fluid terrain of the new communicative, biological, and mechanical technologies.’
But Hardt and Negri’s Benjaminian barbarian is misconceived. This fluidity and self-modification misapprehends Benjamin’s ‘positive concept of barbarism’, for this relates to art’s producers and consumers and is strategic and negational – that is to say it operates in contradictory relation to the points of tension, rather than setting up a parallel utopian existence. Benjamin’s positive concept of barbarism has less to do with an effortless prosthetic use of technologies to modify bodies, flowing in the direction of capital’s own unfolding and post-human dreams of immortality. It has more to do with a scornful appropriation of technologies and the techniques they suggest for strategic purposes of representation. The attempt is to make the speaking commodity condemn itself, in its own language and via an over-exposure that represents all too well the punishing barbarism of our world - as did John Heartfield too in his photomontages. Not over-dramatically, but through form, texture, choice phrases and a suspicion of bombastic Realism, both in its socialist form and in today’s New Capitalist Realism - with its glamour, mediation, pop reference - that has accompanied the former so-called socialist parties’ turn to what they call the New Realism.
It makes little sense to speak of today’s newly barbaric practices - which happen both locally on any street corner or globally via the world wide web, frequently anonymously, eschewing the personal mark of the creator - as either art, on the one hand, or politics, on the other. They are both. And they are also a response to the cheapening of technologies and new forms of reproduction and distribution, as well as a response to the world-wide marketing of signs, and, along with them, the values that they attempt to enforce globally. At their core is a challenge to property relations and the division of labour, for they overcome the notion of artist as profession. They make manifest the struggle to link representation to the right to alter property relations. The tendency of the commodity form is to universalise itself, presenting us then with shared experiences, shared languages, shared experience of class exploitation. In this context, today's impoverished experience is taken to task and re-animated - en masse and technically - by 'newly barbaric' strategies of occupation - and occupation means not relinquishing the ground. .In that context the struggle over signs is a type of Esperanto, internationally experienced and internationally understood. It has its moments of irony and subtlety - subvertisements, net activism spoofs, ironically positioned billboard liberation front activities - all of these anti-culture struggles against the clutter of commercial signs in the environment. The copyrighting and commodification of language as property is most ludicrously expressed in the propaganda of the Brand Names Education Foundation, whose stated mission is:
is to advance worldwide knowledge of the nature, purpose and value of brand names and the responsibilities associated with their use. The Foundation believes that trademarks and brand names enable consumers to make intelligent choices among competing products and services while encouraging accountability, quality and honest competition.
Our response is to find ways of mocking their commodity-bliss and commercial spray-on sublime, in order to produce our own self-determined versions and reveries. These may be subtle or direct.
American Airlines advert – graffitied with US planes drop bombs …..fuckers.
It is still incumbent to insist that representation is not a rendition of the self from the perspective of the commodity. But rather, in order to regain a genuine sense of representation, beyond the bourgeois sense, the right to change property relations must be the implicit demand. Anti-capitalist commodity mockery is one version, and is not immune to recuperation, as Adorno’s Watney’s advert already suggested, in its prefiguration of smart advertising. Anti-capitalist culture is one response to the global world of commodified signs. It is tactical and as such means-directed. Without tactics and not means-directed remains art, that combination of mental and manual labour. There is something immanent to all art that mocks exploitation, immanently, in as much as art is always also not a commodity, but a special type of ‘labour’ that produces a special type of product. Perhaps only communists still want to recognize this, communists, that is, who despise above all that which has been deformed into property. It is also only communists who rejects the idea of art as immunised from the political, as in the 'New Aestheticism' or other culture-protectionist stances. It is only communists who refuse to ignore culture in favour of political engagement, as the too practically-oriented ‘activist’ Left still insist. Only communists who recoil from dissolving culture into the political, in the manner of Cultural Studies where culture misconceived as politics by other means. Still, this version of Cultural Studies is now largely dead, as cultural policy and cultural populism took over:
It is the communist, then, who in seeing this, faces culture as one part of a totality - held up as separate, because its separateness is part of that totality which needs art to seem autonomous. A communism that takes culture seriously in refusing to dissolve it into a symptom of some other political reality, holding on to culture as culture, that is as something in certain ways autonomous, and yet, also, seeing cultural as slashed by, negatively formed by or located in relation to social division, social determination, in relation to property and the division of labour. The insistence on negation - ironically mediated, uncompromising, the refusal to theorise away the contradictions and the pain - refuses turning difference into a badge of pride, and holds onto division as a split in the social totality. Communists of this stripe propose a type of disavowal of art: they still believe – while they disbelieve – in art.